March 16, 2010

Report touts Maine-fed pellet heat

TUX TURKEL

— By

Staff Writer

One in 10 homes and small businesses in Maine could be heated with wood pellets manufactured locally from trees grown in the state, according to the initial findings of a special study group.

That conversion could help Maine move away from its heavy dependence on oil heat and toward cleaner-burning wood fuels, according to a recently compiled draft report of the Governor's Wood-to-Energy Task Force.

The report makes a distinction between burning cordwood in older, inefficient stoves and a new generation of stoves and central heating equipment. A rush this winter to old woodstoves and fireplaces, the report said, could lead to record air pollution levels.

But in interviews last week, some task force members acknowledged that their carefully considered policy statements may be overtaken in the short run by market forces. Heating oil prices that are nearing $5 a gallon, they agree, have many Mainers scrambling to all available forms of wood heat.

The task force was convened last January by Gov. John Baldacci. Its mission is to recommend strategies for Maine to develop sustainable, wood-based alternative energy resources. The group also has voiced the opinion that efficiency and conservation must be the foundation of any large-scale wood-fuel conversion.

The group is chaired by Les Otten, who recently launched Maine Energy Systems, a company that is importing and installing European wood pellet boilers in the region. Members include state and university officials, business people and representatives of the forest products industry.

The group meets twice a month and plans to finalize its recommendations to Baldacci later this summer.

The group paints a disturbing picture of the impact of Maine's dependence on home heating oil, which is used in 80 percent of residences. Every $1 increase in the cost of a gallon of oil for homes and businesses, the group estimated, drains a half-billion dollars from the state's economy, most of it going out of the country.

It's not surprising, then, that Mainers are moving back to wood.

What is surprising, the report says, is the lack of basic information on the trend. No one knows how much firewood is burned, how many homes heat with wood or how many stoves meet modern environmental standards.

''This situation presents potential serious public health concerns,'' the report says. ''The amount of air pollution emitted by woodstoves this winter could approach record levels. Maine's topography will contribute to this problem, since many towns are located in or near river valleys.''

The draft report also pointed to outdoor wood boilers that don't meet updated emissions guidelines as a particular problem.

Wood chips for heating commercial and institutional spaces, and wood pellets for homes and small businesses, are a cleaner alternative than cordwood, the report says.

And there's enough wood supply to meet expected demand for chips and pellets in a sustainable way.

Using Maine Forest Service data, the draft report estimates that fueling 10 percent of the state's homes with pellets -- 45,000 households -- would require 640,000 tons of green wood a year. That would produce 380,000 tons of pellet fuel.

But obstacles exist. Labor issues, including a dwindling number of loggers, could make it harder to increase the harvest.

A conflict between traditional wood users, such as paper mills, and the burgeoning pellet-fuels industry, also is shaping up as a potential roadblock.

Maine has three pellet plants in production and another starting up. Mills are worried that if a large number of pellet plants come on line, they'll compete for the available low-grade wood. That could drive up prices. Their concern is heightened by tight supplies and high prices this year, caused in part by a snowy winter that restricted harvesting.

''A great surge in one industry might create supply constraints in another,'' said Peter Triandafillou, vice president for woodlands at Huber Resources Corp. in Old Town, a timber management firm.

Triandafillou, a task force member and president of the Maine Forest Products Council, said some of these concerns are specific to location. For instance: Northern Maine has a surplus of low-grade wood and not enough markets, while competition is stronger in southern Maine.

Otten, the head of a venture that will depend on a steady, affordable pellet supply, said the competition issue is overstated. Pellet plants today, he said, are using less than 1 percent of the available wood supply.

''It makes for good press to say pellets are driving up the price of wood,'' he said.

This debate, however, may be overtaken by market forces, said Patrick McGowan, the state's conservation commissioner. Instead of bickering over supply projections, he said, the state should be encouraging more pellet plants to locate in Maine.

McGowan, who also serves on the task force, said he has confidence in the Maine Forest Service supply projections. The challenge, he said, is overcoming the logger shortage and other harvesting roadblocks in order to meet the growing demand for sustainable wood heat.

''People are switching fuels anyway,'' he said. ''The question is whether these new businesses are going to be in Maine, or whether they'll be in New Brunswick, Quebec or New Hampshire.''

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com

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